Sunday, September 25, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 6)


It's difficult to grow up in the developed world without building up a set of habits around a television set, some sort of music player, a smartphone, or any other machine that delivers mass media content. Most of us are "followers" of at least a few media personalities. That's just how it is.

Who are my favorites, you ask?

I listen to Clay Pigeon's Wake N Bake show at work, five days a week. Mr. Pigeon picks good tunes. I've enjoyed his radio essays, one-man skits, and street interviews ever since I chanced to catch a few on the Dusty Show while driving around Jersey in the late aughts. He's always struck me as a sweet man. All I know about his history is what he's said on the air: he's originally from Iowa but lives in Manhattan with his wife (whose name escapes me). I believe he used to be a smoker.

The only internet-famous types I keep track of are the boys middle-aged men of RedLetter Media. Best of the Worst scratches more or less the same itch as Mystery Science Theater 3000. I usually skip their takes on recent films (I don't go to the movies much and I don't subscribe to any streaming services), but sometimes I'll click on a new Re:View episode if they're discussing a favorite film of mine or one I've been curious about. I don't follow any of them on social media.

I think that might be about it these days. There are a few blogs I peek at now and then, but I'm not sure that counts. Much as I enjoy reading Nick Carr or Sam Kriss's stuff, I've never felt much personal affection for either of them. Not like Clay Pigeon or the RedLetter Media guys. When you listen to an endearing radio host five days a week, or to a group of conversationalists with entertaining and sometimes fascinating interpersonal dynamics, you're bound to make at least a small emotional investment in them—or, rather, in the simulations of them. I enjoy writers because there's no illusion of propinquity.

I try not to get too invested. Possibly because I've been so deeply disappointed in the past.

Case one: Hunter S. Thompson.

Hunter S. Thompson (1971)

In my late teens and early twenties, he was my idol. I tried to write the way he wrote. My college buddies I took pride in living in a wrecked dorm room lit by Christmas lights because it reminded us of the hotel room sets in the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas movie. If I had to buy beer for a gathering of friends, I got a six-pack of Flying Dog. My away messages on AOL Instant Messenger and personal blurbs on Myspace were quotes from his books. I bought a typewriter because Thompson wrote on one; I somehow believed it would make me a better writer. (I barely used it.) And so on.

Thompson was more than a writer. He was a legend. The outlaw journalist. The trickster. The poet who made eloquence of obscenity. The comic oracle of a deranged American dream. The southern gentleman. The man's man. The ornery, crafty Odysseus confronting the freaks and monsters of a hallucinatory landscape too fantastic to be true and yet too sordid not to be believed.

To this day, the sounds and images of Johnny Depp playing the role of "Raoul Duke" in Terry Gilliam's film is more fixed in my mind than the images and recordings of the actual Thompson (of which there's no shortage). I think that's part of why the Thompson myth remained so tantalizing, even to someone discovering his work more than a quarter century after "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. The Thompson content most likely to reach people is still that which depicts him at the frenzied peak of his glory. 

He was still alive when I was at that age where one is most susceptible to going through a Thompson fanboy phase. If you weren't paying very close attention to what he was up to then, or were too enthralled by his cultic personality not to give him the benefit of the doubt, you only saw that he hadn't stopped raising hell—whether that meant leveling the barrels of his shotgun prose at the pathological fools and moral perverts who'd sniveled their way into power, or getting into drug- and firearms-fueled mischief away from the typewriter. His cultivated air of invulnerability annealed his myth: he lived hard and fast and crazy, and apparently had the preternatural fortitude to withstand it. To defy gravity.

But if you were to look at him critically, you would have discovered him very much the worse for wear. In the commentary track for the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas DVD, he's barely there. He sounds like the mumbling, brain-damaged old man he was. His last original book, Kingdom of Fear, contains a few sustained moments of eloquence and insight, but it gives one the strong impression of having been cobbled together from a heap of typewritten pages by an exceedingly patient editor. The sports columns he wrote for ESPN toward the end of his life (collected in Hey Rube) were the Web 1.0 version of a walk past the monkey house: peer through the glass, see what the celebrity writer is drunkenly jabbering about this week, and then mosey on through toward the hot dog stand. Thompson enjoyed the use of just enough of his wits (and more than enough cocaine) to write some reliably sharp and articulate prose, but at that point he was winding himself up like a Victrola and making celebratory noises about himself.

That's what cured me of my adulation of Hunter Thompson: following the timeline of his work and witnessing its decay. Sure, in this respect I'm judging him as a consumer assessing a commodity—but that's what he and his consubstantiate media eidolon were. He conscientiously made himself into a brand, whose signature products confronted me in the guise of a man. That's how it works.

Hunter S. Thompson (2003)

The Curse of Lono hammered the first dent into my reverence for Thompson. To my estimation, that novel was the last project to which he brought any measure of ambition. You glimpse the frayed threads of a grand vision in its pages, but by that point—the early 1980s—Thompson was too far gone to synthesize his materials into the sharkish monster he hoped to bring to life. The savage grandeur of his intention only divulges hints of itself once or twice, and the rest of it is so many disjointed ramblings of a writer desperately grasping for inspiration.

I've written before about my appreciation for Melville's Pierre—a career-ending train wreck of a novel if ever there was. Lono isn't Pierre. Something of the awful sublime blazes in Melville's janky, melodramatic, despair-soaked self-portrait of surmenage and obsession. But Lono is all smoke and no light. Even the mad triumphalism of its ending seems as though it were delivered through a forced laugh and grin. The passion crackling through every paragraph of his best work has been extinguished.

It strikes me as the novel of a man who'd been high on his own supply since making it big a decade earlier, and is realizing that for all his fame and resources, he no longer has the discipline or lucidity to say what he wants to say, or is even certain he has something to say. It makes me sad to read it.

After Lono, Thomspon ran on cruise control for the rest of his career. He retreated to the safety of a playland, surrounding himself with admirers and enablers, knowing he could rely on the power of his brand to sell whatever it was he managed to write, even if it amounted to political insult comedy laced with self-aggrandization.

Thompson committed suicide in 2005. Shot himself. Didn't even have the decency to wait until his family was out of the house. Arranged to have his ashes shot of a giant cannon shaped like his emblematic "Gonzo Fist," so that the final event of his volition would punctuate the Hunter Thompson narrative with the symbolic adumbration of the audacious, hellraising antihero that came to national attention in 1971.

Ralph Steadman, cover art for The Curse of Lono (1983)

All Thompson wanted to be was a writer, and made it happen through determination and grit. I can admire that.

He wrote some killer books. I can still read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas from cover to cover on a rainy afternoon. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 is invaluable (but perhaps blackpilling) literature for anyone who wants to understand the American electoral process. I can't read Thompson's introduction to Ralph Steadman's Gonzo: The Art out loud without bursting into laughter. (In his later years, Thompson could only access the full depth of his powers when lambasting his long-suffering collaborator—or eulogizing Richard Nixon.)

But he let himself become a self-destructive egomaniac with a Peter Pan complex. He wantonly abused the people around him, and like the textbook narcissist, he had the charisma to get away with it. His writing acts as a superconductive conduit for his magnetic personality, which is no doubt why he's so much fun to read—but it pulls us into and convinces us to accept his narrative of a world where everybody but himself is a doltish NPC at best and an atavistic reptile ape at worst. It captures you to the point where he'll describe spraying Steadman with mace or kicking a man in the balls for no reason, and all you can do is laugh ("that's our Hunter!"), even though we'd be horrified if we witnessed these acts committed by a person who lacked Thompson's gift of expression and mesmeric charm.

I can still read Thompson because I'm able to separate the art from the artist—a tall order in the case of this particular artist. I relate to Thompson most comfortably when he's the the name on the spine of a few books that I occasionally pick up, leaf through a while, and put back down. He's a fine enough hero for the fiery adolescent who smells corruption and bullshit in everything, and wholeheartedly believes that inebriation is praxis—but there's something sad about someone who goes on idolizing such a hot mess after he's cleared thirty. I'd imagine it's even sadder to be that hot mess into your forties and fifties, knowing on some obscure level that a large portion of your admirers love you for the clown show you've made of yourself.

Case two: Marilyn Manson.

Marilyn Manson (1997)

I feel this might be redundant. Like Thompson, Manson (née Brian Warner) got everything he wanted, and having it brought out the worst in him. He's the high priest of his own personality cult. He invented a mythic persona, obliterated every boundary between his private self and public image, and became a grotesque flesh-and-blood caricature. If Thompson behaved poorly towards the people in his life, Manson treated them monstrously.

I idolized Thompson, but I glorified Manson. There has never been a living human being with whom I've been more deeply obsessed.

I was, what, fourteen years old when my Mansonite phase began. It lasted until I was seventeen or eighteen. I can claim to understand celebrity worship because I've experienced it.

When I secretly bought Smells Like Children at Record Town, I was a depressed and angry teenager who has having a horrible time in school (both socially and academically) and wounded by my parents' divorce. I was primed to buy into his "philosophy."

My favorite song, I think, was "Lunchbox." The reason why is right there in the chorus.

I wanna grow up
I wanna be
A big rock and roll star
I wanna grow up
I wanna be
So no one fucks with me

I soon came to believe that Manson understood me. He not only spoke to me, but for me—me and all the other bullied outcasts and misfits. He was the gangly, sneering reflection of all the world's meanness and mendacity, and he spat all of it back in its face. "I am your fault," was the message. "You made me this way." Fuck—I could relate. I wanted to be that, too. The awkward, unpopular kid sick of trying to fit in, to please people to whom he could apparently do nothing right, reinventing himself as a middle finger to the preppies, jocks, mean girls, and small-minded teachers and vice principals. ("The world shudders as the worm gets its wings" and all that.)

It's embarrassing to recount. But we're all of us embarrassing during the first throes of puberty.

I went goth. I painted my nails black and toted Sailor Moon lunchboxes. I had a Marilyn Manson T-shirt for every day of the week. Posters all over my bedroom wall. I went on the internet and looked at photo galleries on fanpages for hours on end. I read his autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, more times than I could count. I collected bootleg concert videos, Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids recordings, and taped his TV appearances. When I got my lip pierced, it was on the left side—so that it would literally mirror Manson's own lip ring on the cover of the "Lunchbox" single.


I saw him in concert four times between 1998 and 2001. I remember a sense of unreality pervading my first experience. The Marilyn Manson I held in awe was a manifold of reproduced images, logos, and symbols on posters, T-shirts, magazines, Hot Topic stickers, and liner notes; he was a leathery, hypnotic voice embedded in a medley of digitized sound issued from a speaker; he was a practical effect in music videos. Something like an act of faith was required to equate the tall but somehow little man strutting onstage with his godlike media eidolon, despite how similar they looked and sounded. It was a lot easier when you were surrounded by other teenagers dressed in black, all of you amplifying each other's enthusiasm, reaffirming your belief in the power of the event in which you participated. Like a church congregation.

We needn't get too much into how I got over it. I went through the process of growing up in fits and starts, while Manson's nonsense became increasingly transparent. After Holy Wood came out in 2001, it was hard to deny his shtick had about run its course. I had a genuine crisis of faith, trying to convince myself that Holy Wood really was an excellent record, that Manson hadn't lost the afflatus of his earlier efforts, and certainly hadn't become a petty, coke-addled, burnt-out diva who bullied his bandmates and sycophants after having alienated most of the people who'd facilitated his rise to stardom. I'd staked too much of my identity on the Marilyn Manson myth to just let it go.

Curiously, the mass process of de-Mansonfication was self-accelerating. Fans started looking at each other, searching for signs of doubt. One person's admission that he or she was no longer buying Mr. Warner's self-generated hype prompted somebody else's. The weakening of belief proliferated like a pathogen. It's funny, but not all that surprising, that a fandom whose members generally claimed to prize individuality and aggressive nonconformity should have its numbers curtailed through a mechanism of herd behavior. Seeing so many other spooky kids relinquishing their Manson swag and defecting to other band fandoms (Slipknot was the most popular choice, I think), one's tendency was to follow. Nobody wanted to be like that last kid still dedicated to collecting and playing with Pogs.

I sometimes wonder if I shouldn't have more sympathy for celebrities. To sign the paperwork and take the ticket is to become something both more and less than a person. More than one to the extent that the conflation of your entity with the artifacts and fetishes through which you are seen, heard, and exalted makes you omnipresent and, in a limited sense, immortal. Less than human because your adoring public is liable to flushing you down the toilet like a goldfish that's outstayed its welcome the moment you give them an excuse. We generally don't treat so callously those people whom we love, whose presence has enriched our lives. But a celebrity isn't a person: he's a product coded as a person. When we admire him, we see the person; when he gives us displeasure, we avail ourselves of him in his function as the product.

I find it strange that Manson fully grasped this his pre-washout years. Some of his lyrics express not only ambivalence, but revulsion toward his early experience of fame (I admit that "Mister Superstar" still gives me the chill of frisson), and yet he continued to drive inexorably forward. Cocaine is a hell of a drug, I guess.

At any rate: A few years ago, my mother admitted to going into my room and reading The Long Hard Road Out of Hell for herself when I was at school, hoping to better understand my devotion to the man on the cover—who was about twenty-nine years old at the time of publication. "Immature" was how she described her impression of him back then. I had to agree.

Marilyn Manson (2012)

It is often said that one should never meet his heroes. This is bad advice.

A better maxim would be: never a make a hero of somebody you don't know. Appreciate them? Fine. Take inspiration from them? Sure. But save your adoration for the people who belong to your life, and fully as people. That way you can be sure they deserve it.

A product can never love you back. It cannot listen. It can never find something that it admires in you.


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